New Zion Trio

Fight Against Babylon
Veal Records Veal 0007

By Ken Waxman

Although there are sketches of Mogen Davids on the sleeve of the New Zion Trio’s Fight Against Babylon CD, and keyboardist Jamie Shaft is a sometime member of Electric Masada, the orientation and sound of the session is towards Rastafarian reggae interpretation rather than anything Hebraic.

Mixing funk, reggae, jazz and pop inflections, Fight Against Babylon is more about what can be created in Saft’s Kingston, N.Y. studio than the sounds of Kingston, Jamaica. But while veteran jazz bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Craig Santiago, whose proficiency stretches to roots, ska and rocksteady, maintain the beat throughout, there are times when Saft’s playing on piano and Fender Rhodes glides a little too close to pop-jazz and pseudo-classical. Imagine reggae drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare mixing it up with Crusader Joe Sample – or MOR piano king Roger Williams. As a matter of fact when Saft’s forceful syncopation kicks in on a number such as “Gates” you’d swear C&W piano avatar Floyd Crammer had been taped playing with the locals during a Caribbean vacation.

In a more serious vein, Saft, who also composes movie scores, is able to impart a cinematic delicacy to many other tracks, creating chamber reggae intermezzos whose romantic voicing could accompany a film’s key scene. Such is “Fire Ablaze”, where the pianist’s initial flashy glissandi become sensitive key clipping by the end. Switching to the electric piano for “Hear I Jah”, his retro ‘70s Herbie Hancock-like key reverb is just sugary enough to add sweetness to the line; but played with enough bravado that combined with Santiago’s foot-tapping rhythm it maintains the composition’s flow.

At the same time while the piano playing is anything but understated, Saft composes tunes that are swing-oriented enough to lock into a groove. For instance Grenadier gets to strut his stuff on “Niceness”, where his initial ostinato and later widely splayed plucks define the narrative while Saft erupts into octave flashing, key clipping and impressionistic cadenzas. Balancing on the bassist’s propulsive pedal point and the drummer’s distinctive rim shots “The Red Dies” is another case in point. Sliding across the keys, Saft’s touch hardens as he asserts himself to eventually establish the theme.

More notable for the trio’s work and his rhythmic compositions than as a keyboard showcase for Saft, Fight Against Babylon is still music to be enjoyed. Just don’t expect subtlety –

and ignore any quasi-religious symbolism.

Tracks: Slow Down Furry Dub; Niceness; The Red Dies; Gates; Hear I Jah; IShense; Lost Dub; Fire Ablaze

Personnel: Jamie Saft: piano, Fender Rhodes; Larry Grenadier: bass; Craig Santiago: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2013